Saturday, June 28, 2008

Wordsmiths: The Foolishness of God

This is one of my favourite poems of all time, from Luci Shaw. I first came across it in The Christian Imagination where it left its indelible footprint. One of these days I'll love to track down her poetry collection, either Polishing the Petoskey Stone or Angles of Light. For now, enjoy this reminder of the topsy-turvy nature of God's kingdom!

.return of the waterfall

The Foolishness of God

Perform impossibilities
or perish. Thrust out now
the unseasonal ripe figs
among your leaves. Expect
the mountain to be moved.
Hate parents, friends and all
materiality. Love every enemy.
Forgive more times than seventy-
seven. Camel-like squeeze by
into the kingdom through
the needle’s eye. All fear quell.
Hack off your hand, or else,
unbloodied, go to hell

Thus the divine unreason.
Despairing now, you cry
with earthly logic—How?
And I, your God, reply:
Leap from your weedy shallows.
Dive into the moving water.
Eyeless, learn to see
truly. Find in my folly your
true sanity. Then, Spirit-driven,
run on my narrow way, sure
as a child. Probe, hold
my unhealed hand, and
bloody, enter heaven.

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Friday, June 27, 2008

Questions on prayer partners

Do you have one? A prayer triplet? How often do you meet? How did you go about choosing who your prayer partner/group is/are?

How do you discuss issues with each other? Do you use a checklist? Besides prayer requests, do you systematically go thru other things with each other, eg. specific Bible passages or perhaps discuss a Christian book?

As a student, I used to pray with our CU every Monday morning, before we split into little groups, and it worked moderately well. Even though it was always difficult to get up early at the beginning of the week, I was quite surprised by how often I missed those times after I moved to London! I'm thinking it might be a good thing to find someone to pray with again.


Thursday, June 26, 2008

Spain 3 Russia 0

I have to say, I really did enjoy this game. Spain are a very good team technically, and I particularly noted their excellence in ball control and on the turn. The second half in particular was a masterclass. To be fair, Russia are not a bad team, but I suspect that they happen to play a style which the Spanish enjoy playing against. In the second half, they failed to use the flanks as much offensively and failed to press defensively, as they did in the first, and coupled with Spain's edge in quality when it comes to delivery of the final ball, this resulted in a rather decisive Spanish win. Btw, which coach wouldn't be envious of a squad which gets to bring on Fabregas and Alonso as subs?

Spain were actually the team I was ready to support going into Euro 2008, but because of their reputation as chokers as well as the emergence of the Dutch team in the group stages, I was rather reticient in declaring my allegiance. But I am definitely backing the Spanish against the Germans in the Final! (Hope I didn't just jinx them...)


Movies and convictions

I've just finished listening to a fantastic podcast from the folks over at Christ and Pop Culture. They discuss the recent controversy over the Sex and the City review posted at Christianity Today, but it's a great listen even for those who aren't interested in or haven't followed this particular maelstrom. As I've said before, it's not so much SatC but the attitudes of Christians towards culture (not that any of us can ever escape from our cultural context) which interests me and this podcast is particularly thoughtful on that front.

What they do so well is to show where both sides of the debate have got it right, and wrong. Along the way, they helpfully address the important contextual questions of audience and reception and what to expect from a movie review. This takes up about 2/3s of the podcast, and the remaining 1/3 is dedicated to helping us think through whether or not we should see a particular movie. More than that, I thought that they showed a keen awareness of the Pauline distinction between Scriptural areas of command and personal areas of conviction and applied it very well. This is a big theme in Paul's writings and touches not only on films but on many other parts of life so it's good that it was at the very least implicit throughout their discussion. Definitely worth a listen. (45 mins)

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Questions for readers

Today's question has to do with note-taking and the marking of books - I'm thinking primarily of anything that falls under non-fiction here. How many of you annotate your books, and if so, how do you go about it? Why do you do it, and does it help with memory retention? Do any of you also write in your Bibles? I do mark some of my books, especially as we were exhorted often to always read 'actively' with a pencil in hand, but I tend to summarise more than anything else; I rarely feel confident making evaluative comments. The only book I've ever outlined in full was Kris Lundgaard's The Enemy Within, but that's because he made it so easy for me already.

I've become aware of some note-taking systems out there, such as the Cornell Note-taking System, which I wished I've known about while at university. Do any of you use systems like these and how helpful are there?


Monday, June 23, 2008

Questions on quiet times

Blogging is meant to be more than one-way traffic so I thought I'll have some questions for my readers this week. Pretty simple stuff, no "meaning of the universe" questions here!

I've been wondering in particular what people, i.e you readers, do for quiet times/devotional life/whatever you wish to call it. What's your routine? How long do you usually spend? Do you use devotional notes? What works for you? What have you found helpful?

When I was in boarding school, I used Scripture Union's Closer to God, which wasn't too bad - at the very least, it meant that rather than puzzling over what to read and feeling completely defeated when I felt like I didn't understand Scripture, it gave some sense of structure and relief that help was at hand. I've also quite recently used Encounter with God, which is the grown-up version of CtG. For a devotional, I think it's pretty good as well, especially as they try to make sure that you spend sustained time in at least parts of Bible books rather than jumping around proof-texts, which can be the failing of so many other devotional material. The downside of devotional notes, though, is that sometimes I feel like I'm reading the personal thoughts of the writers (which might or might not be worthwhile), and it's also easier, I think, to allow them to do the reflecting on the Scriptural text for me and thus, fail to engage with God's word directly. (My one exception to this is Eugene Peterson's A Long Obedience in the Same Direction; always stimulating and challenging!)

Over the past couple of years, I tend to read through whole books of the Bible over a period of time, probably to get away from the piecemeal approach I had adopted in my formative years. I've used Matthias Media's Interactive Bible Studies, which usually have something like 8 studies on a Bible book, although you could split some of the studies into two if you're either pressed for time and/or part of a passage is so striking that it's worth just pausing and reflecting. I like using these studies for quiet time because I find that answering questions makes me much more of an active reader than a passive consumer. Well-crafted questions in a Bible study booklet are often hard to find but I think these Matthias Media resources have a decent stab at it: they do give you an angle into getting a handle on the text and the application questions are helpful as well. The downside is that they can take time, and they're not as handy to take with you if you're travelling, and for some (i.e me), I think that there is always the danger of confusing filling in the application section with actual application to our lives. As with any series like this, some are probably better than others - I found their Colossians booklet better than their Galatians, for instance.

Through the Bible through the year StottI've also used one or two Good Book Guides, similiar in intent to the Matthias Media stuff, but I don't think they're quite as good. I felt that the questions could be more rigorous and that it sometimes jumped around too much. To be fair, I've only used their topical ones, so that could be the reason. The one NavPress study I've used suffers from the opposite problem, too much detail and some questions which might be interesting but tangential!

Something else I have done for my quiet time is to read expository material or sermons. Roy Clements on 2 Corinthians, for eg., is very good. Again, the downside of this is similar to using devotional notes, I'm often tempted to skim on personal reflection. Also, sometimes reading sermons or expositions can be very dense unless you can find some way to break them down into manageable parts.

Some of my friends use Explore notes, which might combine the best of both worlds. They're devotional notes, but instead of the observations and reflections of the writer, you get one or two short questions on comprehension, some notes, and then one or two short application/reflection questions. So it's not as if you're doing a full-length Bible study, but at the same time you're not being a passive reader either. I've not used them myself, but maybe I should. Neither have I used those material that take you through the whole Bible in a year, like John Stott's Through the Bible Through the Year or Carson's For the Love of God. I always find them too intimidating. Some people, if they know what is being preached the following week, spend some time on that particular passage and I occasionally do that.

Anyway, yes, what do you do? Leave some comments!

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Saturday, June 21, 2008

A new chapter

Sorry it's been a bit quiet around here this week. I seem to have lots of things going on in the last few days, and I was also slightly unwell on Thursday, no doubt thanks to my immune system being battered due to a very late night watching the Celtics clinch their 17th championship against the Lakers.

Anyway, I just thought I'll let my readers know a bit more about what's been happening, since it would have an impact on my blogging. Of course, if you know and see me regularly, you would know all about this already! Basically, I will be moving back to Oxford in mid-August to start life as an apprentice at St. Ebbes. I certainly did not forsee this a year, or maybe even 6 months ago, but God, in his timing, has brought it all about and I'm pretty excited and daunted all at once.

Some of you might know what apprentices or apprenticeship schemes (or if you're from Australia, Ministry Training Schemes) are, particularly if you move in particular church circles or networks here in the UK, but for the rest of you who are scratching your heads, here's a brief rundown. "Apprentice schemes are 1-2 year placements with evangelical churches, normally incorporating practical service, Word ministry and some formal training" (9:38 website), meant to help people think through whether 'full-time paid gospel ministry' (although let us be clear, all Christians are 'full-time'!) is right for them in the context of serving the local church and being under the watchful eye of those who are already in the ministry. I've seen an apprentice defined as "someone who has committed themselves to learning about gospel ministry as part of a local congregation" and that's not at all a bad way of putting it. In other words, it is both a 'testing ground', to see whether it is right for someone to pursue such a path, and a 'stepping stone', in that such experience and training would no doubt prove invaluable. It's a great model, I think, because it gets you involved in the life of a local church and to be looking to build God's people up, and also in watching those more mature than you at work, because discipleship isn't just taught but caught. Christopher Ash puts it this way: "The gifts of Christ are discerned by the body of Christ as they are used by the servants of Christ".

For more, have a browse of the 9:38 website and their articles section, especially those by David Jackman, Vaughan Roberts, and Chris Green.

I will be working primarily amongst international students, possibly with an eye on the postgrads in particular. One of the blessings is that although I'm on the move again for the 4th time in 6 years, this time I'm moving back to familiar surroundings. I spent 3 years at Ebbes as an undergraduate and it's fair to say that I grew a lot as a Christian during my time there. Some of you might recognise the name of the rector (Anglican jargon for senior pastor), Vaughan Roberts, perhaps best known for his book God's Big Picture. One of the most amusing anecdotes I've read about Ebbes actually comes from Alister McGrath's biography of J.I Packer. Apparently, when Packer was in Oxford as a student in the 1940s, he initially went along to Ebbes but left because he found the place "cold and unwelcoming"! Over half a century later, Packer attended an Ebbes service when yours truly was there so I'm guessing Dr. Packer has since revised his opinion. Although I think I found settling in hardgoing at times, I don't think I could ever accuse Ebbes of the same thing and hope that it would continue to be a welcoming place for internationals.

At the same time, it would also be a new experience, since I'll be at Oxford as a non-student, and of course, many of my friends are no longer there. Even many on the staff team will be new as well. There are some little niggly things still to sort out, like visas and funding, so prayer's always welcome. So expect things to be busy after August, with blogging likely to rank lower on the list of priorities!

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Monday, June 16, 2008

Random meme

OK, OK, I'll do your meme, Deb. :-p Sigh, isn't this a serious blog? Are you sure you didn't mean the blues crooner? 'Cause this meme's making me all no, just kidding.

But firstly, should mention this post: Art, Nudity and Sex and the City, which I noticed after they linked to my SatC post. It's a good one.

Meme time:

1. Were you named for anyone?
My dad apparently took a liking to the name of an Irish king and hence, my name, which apparently means hill or strong or noble or something along those lines.

And you have no idea how many times my nickname has inspired the Burger King joke. I should eat there for free considering the free publicity they get.

2. When was the last time you cried?
No idea, but I'm sure it was this year.

3. Do you like your handwriting?
Sure. It's not too bad, although my mum begs to differ. Interestingly, apparently I write Chinese characters beautifully, although I don't know what they mean most of the time.

4.What is your favourite lunchmeat?
With Deb here, it's definitely pork.

5. Do you have kids?
I'll be worried if I had any I didn't know about!

6. Would you be friends with you?
Errr....I don't know really. I always thought that I'm a bit of a boring person. But I've always had an interesting variety of friends. Anyway, ask my friends on this score.

7. Do you use sarcasm a lot?
Er, not really, I don't think so. But I do like ideas of inversion so often found in irony.

8. Do you still have tonsils?
Should do, unless aliens took them away.

9. Would you bungee jump?
Actually, I hate to admit it, but probably not.

10. What is your favourite cereal?
Honey Stars!

11. Do you untie your shoes when you take them off?
No. Have you seen my shoes?

12. Do you think you are strong?
Er, again, ask my friends. Although I've survived Finals, I've survived mugging, I've survived a robbery, I've survived a depression in the family. But really, that's God grace, isn't it?

13. What is your favourite ice-cream?
I don't know much about ice-cream, but I do remember liking Haagen-Daas Pralines and Cream.

14. What is the first thing you notice about people?
Not sure. Possibly their mannerisms or speech.

15. Red or pink?

16. What is your least favourite thing about yourself?
I would like more courage, I think. I'm non-confrontational, which can backfire when a conflict requires facing it head on, and working through my feelings more.

17. Who do you miss the most?
I think it's my 2 good friends cum movie-buddies from Oxford days, especially as I know we'll never be able to re-enact such moments again. But I think I might miss S too, who has invested in a friendship with me in the past 2 years and did look genuinely disappointed when he discovered tonight that I'll be on the move from London in a couple of months.

18. What colour pants and shoes are you wearing?
Brown, no shoes.

19. What was the last thing you ate?

20. What are you listening to right now?
Radio isn't on; just the sound of the cars whizzing by on the main road. I think the last track played on this computer was Leigh Nash's Ocean Sized Love.

21. If you were a crayon what colour would you be?
Blue? Cyan? Something not overly flashy.

22. Favourite smells?
The ocean. After the rain. And actually, nicely done-up hotel rooms, if you know what I mean. Oh, and cats. And any kind of tasty food.

23. Who was the last person you talked to on the phone?
JT (no, not that one), wanting to know if "I've been hired!"

24. Favourite sports to watch?
I love watching most sports. Basketball, football, badminton, tennis. I can even watch golf if I have nothing else to do. But I draw the line at lawn bowls, and I don't understand cricket.

25. Hair colour?
Red and, just kidding. Black. I think people would be concerned for the state of my soul if I ever dyed my hair.

26. Eye colour?

27. Do you wear contacts?

28. Favourite food?
Tough one. I really like my mum's ang zhou bak though. And next time I'm home, kampua mee is first on the list!

29. Scary movies or happy endings?
Happy endings. Which, btw, should be differentiated from sappy ones.

30. Last movie you watched?
I rented Michael Clayton recently on DVD, and I have to say it was superb. I recommend it.

31. What colour t-shirt are you wearing?

32. Summer or winter?

33. Hugs or kisses?
Hearty bearhugs are great!

34. Favourite dessert?
I don't really do desserts much, but British desserts are generally nice, whether it's toffee pudding or banofee pie or apple crumble. Just as long as there's not too much of it.

35. What book are you reading now?
As usual, more than one - very bad habit. There's a fascinating one by the Harvard neuroscientist Steven Pinker called The Stuff of Thought, which I picked up at half-price. I've also been dipping into Ajith Fernando's Jesus-Driven Ministry and Tim Harford's The Undercover Economist. Oh, and I've finished The Poisonwood Bible.

36. What is on your mousepad?
My mousepad is a newsletter.

37. What did you watch on TV last night?
I don't own a TV, but last Thursday, I borrowed one so that I could stay up late and watch Game 4 of Boston Celtics-LA Lakers, which was a real treat for me as it's the first time in years I've watched an NBA game. It was worthwhile too, as the Celtics made one of the biggest comebacks in Finals history. I think I'll stay up for Game 6 tomorrow too.

38. Favourite sounds?
You know the atmospheric sounds you hear on crime shows when the cops are just crusing around the city? Or to put it another way, if you've ever listened to Death Cab for Cutie's Brothers on a Hotel Bed or U2's City of Blinding Lights? No, you don't know what I'm talking about? :( Well, I like that. I like things that have a rhythmic quality to them too. A nice poetic couplet read out loud is good.

39. Beatles or Rolling Stones?
Beatles. I know more of their songs.

40. What is the farthest you've ever been from home?
I think Stockholm might be it. That also happens to be one of my favourite holidays.

41. Do you have a special talent?
Can't think of any. Well, a friend of mine used to say: "Your diplomacy is amazing!" but I don't think that counts as a special talent.

Deb, whis is this meme so long? And why, yarn? I've suffered through it, so you better be suffering with me too!

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Friday, June 13, 2008

The Bible and Other Faiths 10

For previous entries, just click on The Bible and Other Faiths label at the end of this post.

A New People

The gospel challenges religion. It makes us face up to the truth of universal sin and the impotency of our self-righteousness. As we reflect on how the gospel shapes our engagement with people of other faiths, we ought to let it examine ourselves as well. The gospel as found in the New Testament offers a unique diagnosis of human problems which in turn need to be brought to bear in all discussions about other faiths.

Having made that clear, IG wants to tackle a different question: how the NT shatters ties between people, power and land, the triad that characterises so much of religion. For the cross offers radical answers to old questions: blessing is now available to all peoples, true power lies in weakness, and this new community does not derive their identity from state or land. Yet this is not a case of being so other-worldly that the world right now doesn’t matter. Here’s a great quote from IG: “We might picture Caesar’s kingdom as filling a two-dimensional plane. The kingdom of God is not, then, a separate kingdom within that plane, but a third dimension that intersects with every point on it.”

IG now briefly walks us through the NT with an eye on tracing the theme that God’s blessing to the nations has come in the person of Jesus Christ. Matthew introduces us to the son of David and Abraham, and yet it was the Magi, foreigners of a different faith, who first recognise him as king of the Jews, and the end of Matthew climaxes with Jesus’ declaration to make disciples of all nations, as He is Lord of all. Mark’s gospel appears to be written for a Gentile audience, and while they don’t stand out, there are plenty of accounts of Jesus’ encounter with Gentiles, and it is the Roman centurion, standing at the cross, who cries out, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” Luke-Acts should be taken together, where Jesus interacts with various non-Jews, and the gospel goes from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. John is different. There are not many references to non-Jews, yet the prologue immediately establishes Jesus as the universal life-giver, and in John 12, a significant point in the gospel, Jesus cries out, “The hour has come!” referring to his imminent death on the cross, at precisely the point when some Greeks desired to see Jesus. Taking into account the teaching of the NT as a whole, we recognise that this was always God’s plan, to include non-Jews into his kingdom.

“Working this out was not easy, because including the Gentiles disrupted the ties between religion and a particular people and culture”. Galatians deals with the big question of circumcision and ritual purity, which leads to Paul’s great explanation of the function of the law and the importance of faith, all the while insisting this is not actually new by pointing back to Abraham’s relationship with God. Loving our neighbours as ourselves, through the Holy Spirit, is now the basis of our actions. Galatians refuses to link faith in Christ with a particular culture or set of rules.

The “true Jews” are people without nation or land, and IG turns to 1 Peter to illuminate this. Those who believe and trust in Jesus are the new temple where God dwells. Land is no longer a key issue, for Christians are “aliens and strangers in this world”. The Christian’s allegiance is now first and foremost to God, but this does not require a Christian state. Instead, they should strive to be obedient citizens of the state, again, a radical suggestion considering that the early Christians were suffering persecution! But why? Part of the reason has to lie in the fact that the Messiah is for all peoples, and he has come to rescue people not from their enemies, but from their sins. His ‘sword’ is of a different category. Furthermore, their calling as God’s people is for the purpose of mission – like Israel, they are to glorify God amongst the nations.

God’s kingship is a big theme throughout the NT. In Revelation we will see the Lamb of God upon the throne, judging all the nations. Jesus would have surprised his hearers, though, when he preached the Sermon on the Mount. No mention of an ethnic, political or national kingdom is to be found there. The meek will inherit the earth, not the conquerors. It is purity of heart and the recognition of the need for mercy that is important, not religious laws. The new way of doing politics is peacemaking. Jesus consistently refused political power, and he is called “King of the Jews” only when he is on the cross. Jesus kingdom was not of this world, but it did challenge the kingdoms of this world, as Herod and Caiaphas both perceived. Going back to Revelation, the final vision is of a new land, where all the kings of all the nations will come, there will be no more temples, and the people will be under the direct rule of God (Rev. 21-22).

IG goes back to Acts to dwell a little more on the question of how this new heavenly kingdom interacts with the earthly powers. Right at the beginning, Jesus promises a different kind of power, people and land. The power is that of the Holy Spirit, the people they are to be are witnesses, and land is now redefined not just to mean Jerusalem but the entire earth. The coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 can be read as a reversal of Babel: people don’t build religion to gain power in the land, but people in every land should now hear of the good news of Jesus Christ. This is the pattern of Acts. The bold preaching of the apostles leads to persecution at the temple. Their prayers recognise God as ruler of all, including over the political powers of the day, and they ask for power in the Holy Spirit. The church is willing to sell land, and indeed, abuse of land leads to disastrous consequences (Acts 5). Stephen himself confronts the people-land-power triad in his impassioned speech, where he argues that the temple was no longer necessary.

Acts emphasises the gospel encounters over political encounters, it is the Holy Spirit’s work that Luke is interested in. But “Paul and the other disciples live within the two-dimensions of Caesar’s kingdom as well as in the third dimension of God’s kingdom.” Paul and John stand before the Sanhedrin as Jews and Paul stands before governors and kings as a Roman citizen. But Paul will continually preach the kingdom of God and not about earthly powers. Elsewhere in the NT, especially in Revelation, the link between religion and power can be a dangerous one. The mark of the beast is the abuse of power, wealth and self-sufficiency, and these are the traps religion can fall into. A religion becomes “beastly” when it becomes to closely associated with a powerful leader, or a totalitarian state. Revelation suggests that this sort of religion has its origin in Satan’s schemes. The good news is that we are assured of God’s victory over Satan!

Graeme Goldsworthy has succinctly defined the kingdom of God as “God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule”. IG has been using a similar triad of people-power-land throughout this book in her reflections on the biblical story, missions, and other faiths, but I think it is only in this chapter that I’ve begun to understand why she has taken this angle and how much insight such an approach could provide. I think she’s largely on the money about how much this triad actually informs our understanding of religion in this world. It’s a pity that in this chapter she could only offer a survey as she appears to have much more to offer! My only tiny quibble is that the last subsection of this chapter could have been organised better.

Reflection questions:
What is salvation? What do the Jews of Jesus’ time / people of other faiths / you want to be saved from?

According to 1 Peter, what are the marks of the new people of God?

Nationalist religion, political religion, legalistic religion…how could a God-given religion go so wrong? What might be the results in your context of living by the Beatitudes in relation to people of other faiths?

Where do you see religions linked with land and power in the world today? Where does the Holy Spirit kingdom meet the political powers in your country?

Facing Samaritan Religion

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

SatC and the question of cultural engagement

CT's review of Sex and the City has provoked something of a storm, with Ted Slater of Boundlessline going as far as hyperbolically attacking them for relishing sexual perversion. Now I'm not exactly the target demographic for this show, having never watched a single episode, and I don't plan to change that. Actually, what I'm interested in here is not Sex and the City, but rather that this debate has once again raised questions of what cultural engagement looks like. I occasionally write book and film reviews on this blog, and I've always wanted to sketch out a little of how I engage as a Christian with things like these, especially after my post on Philip Pullman. Rather than lay out anything comprehensive at this point, I just thought I'll lay out a few basic points, and then maybe speak a little about this particular debate with these points in mind.

1. It is clear that Scripture gives us freedom on a number of issues. Nevertheless, we should bear in mind the weaker brother/sister in love. To slightly adapt a biblical example, I might not think that eating idol food has any consequences because of my belief that God is the one true living God, I might refrain if I think a Christian brother or sister who sees me doing that as a result, might struggle.

2. On the flip side, there is the opposite danger in which a Christian insists on a certain ritual/rule/prohibition that becomes normative for all Christians, and thus falls into the trap of legalism. Circumcision would be the obvious eg. in the NT. Paul got really worked up about this because he saw that it posed a real threat to the gospel. A contemporary eg. in some circles might be alcohol: either you're teetotal or you're not really a Christian.

3. I approach books/films/other cultural artifacts worldviewishly, which I find is a much more helpful angle to take. Instead of simply asking: is this morally good or bad (which are not wrong questions in themselves, but don't often lead very far because films and literature tend to be complex), it's far better to ask worldview questions of it. How does the film conceive of ultimate reality? Does it describe our own experience of the world? What does it say about the director's own views? What questions or issues are raised? Are there "true truths", i.e truths which Christians can agree on, here? Do you feel like the film has given you any true insights into the world, or has it just felt depressing/a cheap shot/etc.? How does the Christian faith speak into this particular situation or setting?

4. This doesn't mean we can justify going to watch any movie - the Bible does talk about fleeing from immorality. But it also recognises that different people struggle with different things, and we should also take into account things like maturity and stage of life. Some people are more astute cultural critics than others, and that should be taken into account as well. We should be equipping Christians to engage with culture better.

One of the basic issues in this debate is that different people have different expectations from a film review from an evangelical publication. Since I regularly read CT reviews, I get the sense that the editors don't want to babysit you and so will not tell you what or what not to watch, but I think a large swath of readers wanted something more prescriptive: watch/don't watch this movie! In some ways, the reviewer also treated her review as somewhat of a personal essay, which is not necessarily something wrong; lots of film reviewers like Ebert do it.

Having said all that, I am actually in basic sympathy with those who oppose the movie. I think Camerin Courtney could have been more careful with her words and should have done better at pointing out the immorality in the movie beyond "There's a threesome." But I'm not sure Ted Slater's initial riposte was all that helpful. The best response is actually from Carolyn McCulley. It's thoughtful and frames the issues much better. But the point of this post isn't really about who's right or who's wrong, but the way we think these things through - it's not just the conclusion that counts in this case, but how we get there.

Bear in mind I'm not trying to be comprehensive here, but am just making a couple of points. If you want a (very much imperfect) eg. of how I try to engage worldviewishly with culture, have a look at my review of Kate Winslet's Little Children.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sir Alan hasn't hired me

but a most unexpected employer has! Or has at least made an offer. I wasn't even sure if I would get to this point, let alone this soon, but God works in the most surprising ways.

I expect nerves about everything, visas, whether I'm competent etc. will kick in later, but for now, surrealness.

Thanks to everyone who prayed. Even if you weren't sure what you were praying for!

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Saturday, June 07, 2008


This made me laugh.

After my deep and wide-ranging survey of the political landscape, which took all of 5 seconds, I think Obama should pick either Joe Biden, Bill Richardson or Wesley Clark.

For McCain, I think Condi Rice is the most capable, but she suffers from being too closely tied to the Bush administration.

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Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Bible and Other Faiths 9

For previous entries, just click on The Bible and Other Faiths label at the end of this post.

Setting the scene: The World behind the text

In this chapter, IG simply wants to introduce us to the socio-cultural world of the New Testament. It’s a short chapter, and I’ll just list her observations here:

  • Like the world of the Old Testament, this is still a world of many gods, peoples, places, political powers, laws, rituals and stories.
  • The Middle East however had been under Greek and now Roman rule, and they obviously brought their own cultural and intellectual influences.
  • The Jews had returned from Babylon, but would still consider themselves in exile as God’s promises of restoration had not been fulfilled. There was expectation that God would work to vindicate himself.
  • In the meantime, the Jews had to work out what it meant to be holy in their context. How do they continue to relate to people of other faiths, especially their oppressors? These created all sorts of tensions, including

    1. Political tensions: Alexander the Great had conquered Israel; after he died, his empire became divided into two parts, the Seleucid and the Ptolemic, who would then proceed to fight over Israel. The Jews gained independence after 25 years of armed struggle (167-142 BC), but by 63BC, internal power struggles were so bad that the competing leaders turned to Rome for help, which led to them taking power. King Herod and his three sons ruled Israel before Pontius Pilate took over. There continued to be armed struggle, and Jerusalem was captured by the Romans in AD70 and the temple was destroyed.
    2. Cultural tensions: Alexander the Great sought to hellenize his vast empire, including things like introducing democratic government and mandating that Greek literature, arts and philosophy were taught in schools. This divided the Jews, some were strongly against this; others, feeling peer pressure, as it were, were ashamed of their identifying marks such as circumcision (which would have been made clear if they participated in athletic competitions, where people ran naked).
    3. Social tensions: The high priest happened to also lead the Sanhedrin, which governed the Jewish community, meaning religious and political power were joined. Not surprisingly factions developed to try to wrest for control, each with different ideologies – let’s co-operate with the Romans! Too much foreign influence – we need to exercise more independence from the Greeks! Etc. Also, it was a world of social inequality, with privileged Roman citizens and non-Roman citizens, masters and slaves etc.

  • Various theological issues came to the fore and were debated, such as the afterlife, the meaning of righteousness, and angels and demons. For eg., what exactly is resurrection and is it physical? Do angels act as our mediators between humans and a God who is too far from us? (These ideas might have been syncretistic, influenced by Persian and Babylonian ideas).
  • The Jews were looking for the “kingdom of God”. For them, this means blessing for righteous people and judgment for unrighteous people, together with transformation of the whole world. Linked to this was the coming of the Messiah, who would bring social, political and religious freedom.
  • Who are the true Jews? How should they relate to other peoples? These questions gave rise to different answers:

    1. The Pharisees believed the exile was the result of disobedience to the law, and sought to keep every aspect of it. They tried to keep separate from unclean people, i.e those who did not keep the law. They tended to be ‘lay’ people, but also had influence amongst the ‘scribes’, the students of the law.
    2. The Sadducees were the priestly party and tended to come from the upper classes. Less strict than the Pharisees, with more emphasis on the written than the oral law, and rejected the notions of physical resurrection, final judgment, and angels and demons.
    3. The Essenes were stricter than even the Pharisees, the ascetics of their day. No pleasure, no wealth etc. They saw themselves as the true Israel. The Qumran community is perhaps the most famous of this group, who went to live in the wilderness in isolation. But some did live in cities, and they supported a different high priest from the Sadducees.
    4. The Zealots chose the way of armed resistance. They are the revolutionaries. Judas Iscariot and Simon the Zealot might have belonged to this group.
    5. The Herodians are another nationalistic group. Little is known about them, except that they supported the kingship of Herod and saw Jesus as a threat to the Jewish nation. (Mark 3:6, 12:13)

  • Separating or fighting the Gentiles…the Jews didn’t look like wanting to bless the nations! Even the Sadducees disliked dealing with the Romans and would not include Gentiles into the nation of Israel. However, the Jews did believe that the restoration of Israel meant that God’s rule would be extended even among the Gentiles. We must also remember that there was a growing Jewish diaspora at this time.
  • There were some Jewish “evangelists”. They invited others to follow the God of Israel and circumcised them, considering them part of God’s people. So there were Jews who desired that the other nations come to know their God, and people of other nations who were receptive to that call. Sadly, some conversions happened through military might, such as the Idumeans towards the end of 2nd century BC.

Those already familiar with the first century world would not find anything new here, but it’s a clear presentation and helpful to have in mind especially in relation to her subject matter.

Reflection questions:
Withdrawal, cooperation, cultural protest, armed resistance…where can you see Christians relating to political powers, and to people of other faiths, in these ways today?

In what ways is the world you live today like the New Testament world? (Bruce Milne suggest in Dynamic Diversity some interesting parallels, such as the local diversities of the worlds of the 1st and 21st century, and what he calls the “imperial skin” of the 1st century and today’s “globalization skin”. He also suggests that in both worlds, the need to belong to a community is strong indeed due to the fragmentation of society).

A New People

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Of subsidies and corruption

That's the heading of Malik Imtiaz Sarwar's column first published in the Malay Mail. It's the simple points that have to be made sometimes.

{HT:Jeff Ooi}

The increase of food prices has certainly been noticeable in my weekly visits to Tesco.

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Britain's Got Talent 2008

This show's been as compelling as ever. I have to say, after watching the initial auditions, I was underwhelmed. There didn't seem to be as many unique and outstanding acts as last year, and just as disappointingly, even fewer so-bad-they're good trainwrecks. But in the end, I actually thought the Final was stronger this year. The eventual winner George Sampson, a breakdancer, who was also on last year's show, won me over with his fighting spirit, which was even more impressive considering he was not considered a top-2 act going in. (The bookmakers, rather mystifyingly, had listed the contemporary-classical music act Escala as the favourites).

Faryl Smith, whom I shall lazily describe as the next Charlotte Church, was second-favourite to win, and her absence from the top three can only be put down to the British public's decision to opt for something different after Paul Potts' win last year. It seems to me that this show attracts quite a lot of strong classical music acts - apart from Smith and Escala, there was also Andrew Johnson this year.

Anyway, for your viewing pleasure:

There was one great trainwreck - an escape act gone wrong...

Faryl Smith's initial audition. Her family almost pulled her out before the semis over fears that the attention would be overwhelming. Simon Cowell was on the phone in a flash!

Signature, the eventual runners-up:

I can see why they didn't win, but I enjoyed them all the same - Kate and her dog Gin doing James Bond:

George Sampson, the winning act:

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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Tonight's seekers Bible study

I'm quite encouraged by how tonight's study went. It wasn't that everything went amazingly smoothly or that I led superbly - I didn't, having relied on my co-leader to rescue me when I stumbled a little at v.9-10 - but it felt significant in that it lent insight into what the members of my group were thinking, and that they were beginning to see the gospel of grace with more clarity. They might even have seen a little bit of the offence of the gospel as well!

One or two of you will know that the group I co-lead is a seekers group, and so just about everyone is not a Christian. All of them come from abroad, like myself, but unlike myself, most of them are not fluent in English. In some ways, Colossians has not been an obvious book to go through with them, although there is plenty of great stuff, such as the supremacy of Christ in 1:15-23 which are very good at pointing them towards Jesus. But there are other parts, such as last week's passage on 2:16-23, with talk about New Moon festivals and worship of angels which would be harder to teach non-Christians, although I guess the main point of that particular passage, that it's necessary to stay "connected with the Head" (v.19) would still be good for non-believers. The Word of God is eternally relevant to everyone; it just means I have to be more creative and think more laterally when I think how a specific passage speaks into their particular situation.

Anyway, when I first saw that I was slated to lead on 3:1-11, I didn't actually think it would open up the discussion the way it did; after all, the moral exhortations of the passage are what usually immediately jumps out at people. But from the get-go, as I focused on v.1-4, which is key to making sure we don't understand v.5-11 in a moralistic way, they asked really intelligent questions that showed they had picked up on the already/not yet tension. I was really surprised. (It helps that at this stage of the year, we've become pretty comfortable with each other, and so they're not afraid to ask questions or to try to articulate what they think). So "why does God not completely destroy sin now?" or "Wait, I'm not clear on getting new bodies, do we get them when we die or when we believe in Christ?".

But I think where the discussion really came to life was when they struggled to understand the relationship between faith and works, i.e "Since you are a Christian, therefore do XYZ" instead of "Since you do XYZ, therefore you are a Christian". (To be fair, I think it's hard for Christians to grasp this too; I know I myself still sometimes fall into a works-righteousness mindset). You could just about see the lightbulb go on for one of the girls, who brought up the objection: "Wait, it's completely unfair if you can go and do anything you want just because God forgives you!" Now, that's a very good and valid objection to bring up, and in one sense I'm encouraged because I think it was Martyn Lloyd-Jones who once said something along the lines that if someone accuses you of antinomianism, then it's a good sign that you've explained grace well! I guess if Paul was already anticipating this objection in Romans 6 having explained God's grace in 3:21 onwards, then I am on reasonably safe ground and not leading people to heresy. :-p

One of the things I've enjoyed from leading a seekers group is that it pushes me to have to think through things as well. I think in some senses, because their English is not great, it means that you can't get away with waffle. You have to precise in what you say, and learn to communicate clearly and simply. You also have to work harder at the level of worldviews, i.e engaging with people who might have very different presuppositions from you - I find that hard, although me being a fellow Asian does help from time to time. It's still best, I think, to communicate in the mother tongue of the person, and multilingual people have my utmost respect. I guess I am multilingual myself, but my Malay's pretty rusty and my Mandarin, while it has probably improved a little on the listening side, just isn't good enough to have really meaningful conversations. Although some Latinos are delighted when they hear my even more rudimentary Spanish (I took some classes for fun eons ago).

Well, haven't done a stream-of-consciousness post for a while, but I just wanted to write this down.

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Monday, June 02, 2008

You are, so be!

I'm currently writing up a Bible study for tomorrow night on Colossians 3:1-11. One of the best but neglected (for me anyway!) aspects of preparing a Bible study is to ponder and internalise it for onself. I mean, if I really stop and think about what this passage is saying...

If I am a Christian:
I am raised with Christ!
I died with him!
My old life is now hidden with him!
When Christ appears to the whole world, I will share in his glory!
Christ is all (that matters), and in all (who trust in him)!

Because I am a Christian, therefore (and not the other way round):
Put to death all those sinful things lurking within you!
Walk away from bad-mouthing and causing damage to relationships!
Put on the new self, why would you want the old raggedy self anyway?!
Put aside all your ethnic, social and cultural prejudices!

And if so:
The wrath of God no longer rests on me!
I am now becoming more and more like how God always intended it to be, renewed in the image of the Creator!
I am now part of the "new humanity"!

Wow. Now if I really grasped that...
Your Majesty, I can but bow
I lay my all before You now
In royal robes I don't deserve
I live to serve your Majesty

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